The spray from the Atlantic causes your face to itch as you ascend the rocky cliff surrounding the French fort that resembles a medieval castle, its walls now bathed in the mottled pink and red of the rising sun. The way has been blocked at every instance and climbing is the only option. Your arms ache. Below you, the warship you arrived on is nothing more than a dark shape on the water. You take a deep breath and try not to look down. Your orders are simple. Col. Amherst has directed you to take the fort back into British command and, as a soldier under his order, you have no choice but to oblige. You can hear the disembodied screams of the wounded coming from the fort above. This is your destination. Your fellow men at arms are climbing beside you, dodging gunfire from French troops and fighting to hold their footing on the jagged face of the cliff. You have never seen war, have never watched the life drain from another’s eyes, but you are headstrong and willing to do as you are told. As a soldier in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, you know that the honor of dying for the crown will be far more glorious than falling to your death upon the jagged rocks below. So, you climb. This date will forever live in infamy whether you survive this conflict or not. Despite the uneven surface and the weight of all you carry, you finally reach the summit and feel your stomach drop as a bullet strikes you in the chest. You fall to your knees and watch for a moment as your comrades fight their way forward and then, everything fades to black.
“At dawn on September 15, 1762, Royal Navy warships anchored behind the steep hill, with masts out of view of the French. British troops then scaled the cliff side onto the hill itself. The surprise was total, and the engagement was brief but fatal. The commander of the French detachment, Guillaume de Bellecombe, was seriously wounded. On the British side, a bullet shattered the legs of one of Amherst’s officers, MacDonell. The French withdrew to the fort. The British began painstakingly bringing artillery pieces up the cliff and constructed small batteries which they proceeded to use to bombard the fort, until the French capitulated. At the close of the battle, Signal Hill was in the hands of the British. Strengthened by this advantageous situation, three days later they obtained the capitulation of the French garrison of St. John’s, which consisted of just over 1,500 French regulars.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Signal_Hill
My father is a security guard and, for several years, he was charged with protecting one of the most historic locations in Newfoundland. He’d worked his way up from night shifts patrolling the docks, risking his life boarding foreign ships in the dark (you could always miss a step on the gangway and plummet into the Atlantic and be crushed between the boat and the pier) and dodging particularly nasty rats, to securing the local airport (there’s only one.) When the position at Signal Hill became available, my father jumped at the chance for a change. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his position, it was just that the tourist site was easy enough to look after at night and there weren’t a lot of people who went up to the tower after dark. Sure, it was a popular place for teens to make out, but he could handle that. He was assigned the night shift, meaning it was just him wandering the areas surrounding Cabot Tower and the gift shop (only in operation during daylight hours.)
His first few shifts there went well enough. It took him a little while to get a feel for the inspection/patrol schedule and to figure out the keys he’d been given, but overall it seemed simple. He was to make sure all entryways and exits were secure and ensure the buildings were empty of tourists at the close of the business day. It wasn’t until after roughly a month of patrols that things started to get weird.
He’d see lights on in the tower at night. Random lights, not like a bulb controlled by a switch. The lights seemed to dance in the windows, first toward the top of the tower and then toward the bottom. It was almost as if someone inside were wandering about with a candle or a lantern, securing the fort for the night or conducting their own patrol. He’d go to check it out, that was his job after all, but he’d find nothing and have no explanation for the lights he’d seen. In addition to this activity, the gift shop/visitors center began to creep him out. He’d lay down a set of keys, go to the restroom, and return to find the keys on the opposite side of the desk from where he’d put them. There are mannequins dressed in soldier’s garb set in scenes behind glass in the visitor’s center and he swore that those figures would move when he wasn’t looking or that their eyes would follow him as he passed. The uniforms displayed on the mannequins had been worn by members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (1812/1817) and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Band (1795) so I suppose it’s no surprise that the spirits of those who wore the uniforms previously might make an appearance during my father’s nightly rounds.
In addition to securing the tower and the visitor’s center, he also had to walk the path from the center to the tower several times each night. There are no lights on the road and the way is very dark. The Atlantic Ocean is to your right and a swath of sprawling, boggy land lies to your left. If anything had happened to him during these walks, he would have been stuck until the sun came up and someone came to relieve him. Scary stuff.
One night, he was walking along the road toward the tower and noticed movement near a pond to his left. It’s called Dead Man’s Pond because apparently, it’s fed by the ocean and divers have never been able to reach the bottom. It’s also earned this title because people have drowned in the pond and the pond was used to dispose of the bodies of those hanged on Gibbett Hill, the location of a rather active gallows way back when. In 1869, two little girls were skating on the pond and fell through the ice. A local man named Frederick Carter Jr. attempted to save the girls, but he too lost his life. My father witnessed two small figures seemingly floating along the surface of the pond. It was dark, but it seemed as if these two figures had an internal light source. They moved about, oblivious to my father’s presence, then faded away into the darkness.
Many have reported ghostly apparitions on and around Signal Hill. A friend of mine returned from relieving himself with a look of sheer horror on his face. My friends and I would often go to Signal Hill after dark, share a flask, and try to scare one another. This friend, in particular, was a prankster and had scared me numerous times. He was, in essence, the boy who cried wolf in this particular instance. Nobody believed him. He said he was taking a piss by the edge of the wall close to the ledge overlooking Dead Man’s Pond and had seen bodies swinging by their necks on the gallows on Gibbett Hill. We scoffed at him. There WAS no gallows on Gibbet Hill. It was long gone.
Worst. Windchime. EVER.
“Dissection and gibbeting were punishments that had long been established in England and her colonies for crimes of traitors, murderers, highwaymen, pirates, and sheep stealers. The intention was that the body of Peter Downing (Downing was convicted in early April, 1834, for the brutal murders of a school teacher (Mr. Bray), his infant son and a servant girl. For his crimes Downing was sentenced to be hanged, dissected and gibbetted) would be left as a grim reminder and would stay on the gibbet for a year or more until it rotted away or was eaten by birds. Gibbeting was formally legalised in Britain by the Murder Act of 1752.
Gibbeting was not generally accepted by the people in Newfoundland. Many were offended by the sight and odor of a decaying body, others believed that the decaying bodies spread disease, others felt that being hung by the neck till dead was enough, even a criminal should meet his Creator in his full body.
In Harbour Grace, Dr. Sterling heeded the content of the note from the angry citizens. The decayed body of Peter Downing was buried immediately at the Court House, and no attempts were made to have the incident investigated or the body gibbeted again.
In Newfoundland “gibbetting” is well documented. In St John’s, Gibbet Hill, a small peak close to Signal Hill, takes its name from the practice. The location was very intentional. Anyone looking towards Signal Hill would see the ‘gibbeted bodies.” A reminder to heed the laws of the colony!
Newfoundland for a number of years held the dubious distinction of being the last place in the British Empire to proceed with gibbetting.” http://archivalmoments.ca/tag/gibbet-hill/
For those of you who may not know what gibbeting entails…
“A gibbet is any instrument of public execution (including guillotine, executioner’s block, impalement stake, hanging gallows, or related scaffold), but gibbeting refers to the use of a gallows-type structure from which the dead or dying bodies of criminals were hung on public display to deter other existing or potential criminals. Occasionally the gibbet was also used as a method of execution, with the criminal being left to die of exposure, thirst and/or starvation. The term gibbet may also be used to refer to the practice of placing a criminal on display within a gibbet. This practice is also called “hanging in chains.”” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibbeting
To this day, I don’t know if my friend was telling the truth. He always insisted that he’d seen the bodies swaying in the wind and his face was the palest I’d ever seen it. After he told us what he’d seen, he’d promptly thrown up, but that could have just as easily been due to the liquor he’d been consuming.
More Ghostly Tales
Visitors to St. John’s have reported hearing a woman wailing in or around Cabot Tower. There is an old story that tells of a woman who was struggling to keep warm by the fire. She was cradling her baby close to her. The fire had no means of venting, so she’d sometimes have to open the window to let the smoke out. Then the room would become cold and she’d have to close the window again. She did this several times but fell asleep at some point. When she awoke, coughing from the smoke, the realized that her baby had died from smoke inhalation. It is said that her ghost returned to the place of that terrible accident and cries out for her lost baby.
Hikers have claimed to see ghostly apparitions hoisting flags at the top of Cabot Tower. From around 1811-1958, flags were flown at the top of the structure to mark the approach of certain merchant vessels. The flags would alert those on the harbor front that particular vessels were coming in to dock and would allow time to find space to offload cargo.
“Red, white and blue designs represented the firms and trading companies of the day, including Baine Johnston & Co., Ayre & Sons, Bowring Bros & Co., and R. Templeton.
Each flag had a marker, such as an anchor, star, cross or other symbol that would identify the firm, and in turn ships would fly the flag of the merchant whose goods they were carrying.” http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/replica-flags-signal-hill-1.4202910
Painting of the signal flags, also called house flags, from the Maritime History Archive at Memorial University of Newfoundland. (MUN Maritime History Archive/Submitted)
In addition, figures have been seen tossing remains into Dead Man’s Pond. A friend of my fathers claimed that, on one of his walkabouts late in the evening, he came upon two men who were dressed in period clothing, throwing remains into the pond from a pile to their left. Obviously distressed by what he was seeing, he called out to the two men and told them to stop what they were doing. The two men did stop, looked at him, then faded away. When my father’s friend went to the spot they were standing, he could see no evidence of their being there even though it had rained the night before and the spot was quite soggy.
There is no end to the ghost stories told in and around St. John’s. There are even historical tours that highlight this part of Newfoundland history. If you’re ever in Newfoundland, go on the Haunted Hike walking tour. It’s AMAZING. The tour guide will take you to all the creepy/haunted spots in St. John’s for just $10 a person. I believe the tour is around 2 hours long, so that’s a great bargain. It also runs rain or shine!
St. John’s is a city steeped in history, both good and bad, and I’m proud to call it my first home. I hope you all take a moment to learn a little more about it and maybe even visit someday. It’s well worth the trip.
Your Fellow Haunt Head,
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